In a career transition, think of who you would shovel manure for

Are you at a crossroads, wondering if you should change careers, or at least jobs?

Seeking one’s vocation in mid-career can be fraught. Time is always ticking. It feels absolutely critical not to make a mistake, because you can’t afford to waste time on the wrong thing, only to have to start anew a few years later when you’re even older. And so the months tick by, and you’re paralyzed by indecision, growing older anyway.

I know what it feels like, and how liberating it is to come out on the other side.

Not only have I experienced my own career transitions (two of them), but I’ve witnessed the churn others went through as they decided to derail their well-compensated careers to set out on a different course, ultimately living the lives they really wanted. A lawyer became a priest. An accountant became a health coach specializing in women’s body image issues.

But the best story, hands down, belongs to my friend Laura (not her real name).

Shoveling manure, from lawyer to safari guide

Laura has gone from being a law firm partner to becoming a licensed Southern Africa Field Guide — in other words, a safari guide.

I take every opportunity to tell her story because I get to be cool by association, and it’s rare that a week goes by without a conversation about her. More often than not, the response is “this is so awesome! I want her life.”

Well, actually, no – you don’t (and neither do I).

Most people don’t want to spend years volunteering at zoos, sanctuaries, and research stations, frequently doing the standard work of volunteers: cleaning cages, prepping meals for animals, then cleaning more cages.

To be clear: cleaning cages means scooping up a lot of manure all day.

Most don’t want the strong smells, the dirt, being hot (or freezing cold) for weeks, sharing a cramped tent with a fellow trainee, with spotty internet connectivity to boot.

And most really wouldn’t like spending nearly two months in 100-degree weather memorizing different birdcalls, plant leaves, and animal tracks, which is what you’d have to do to get the guide certification.

Your true vocation will be painless, even if it’s challenging

Since leaving the law a year ago, Laura’s life has been exciting, with amazing photographs of wildlife to document it.

But it is also largely unglamorous. There’s dust, animal poop, outdoor showers with inadequate water pressure, instant coffee, homesickness, and venomous snakes and spiders. There’s a dearth of air conditioning, craft beer, hamburgers, and CrossFit.

There are the annoyances that come with being in sweltering close quarters with other humans all the time.

And yet, Laura wouldn’t trade any of this. This is all part of how she is becoming an expert in her chosen field of wildlife conservation. Laura is living her dream. She has found her vocation.

For me, I realized that my vocation has been so obvious as to be invisible. Only recently, as a result of a weekend hanging out with Laura and philosophizing about life, did it dawn on me that I treat writing, especially on issues relating to how work life can be improved, like she treats animal conservation.

Although our physical surroundings and hardships are very different, our understanding that we have to pay our dues is the same.

We both know that we must acquire and apply new knowledge, and we are both OK with discomfort and setbacks. We both checked our egos at the start of our respective journeys, and are willing to approach the work with an apprentice’s mindset.

How I found my ‘thing’

I spent over a decade learning to write without expecting any reward other than writing better. I read my literary heroes forensically, asking what makes Thomas Mann’s stories so memorable, and Graham Greene’s sentences so crisp.

For a more complete education, I also waded through a lot of bad, awful, no-good writing, flagging mistakes to avoid. And I had the privilege of working with professional editors, who taught me to put my verbiage on a diet.

Only in the last few years am I seeing external validation of these efforts. My novel was well reviewed. My articles were picked up by several publications, including this one. Others now ask me to edit their work and seek my advice on writing.

But even though many aspects of writing have become easier, I still have some 12-hour days with nothing to show for them. A post doesn’t gel; a book chapter develops a sinkhole that swallows my entire plot. On many days, my behind goes numb from too much sitting, and my eyes have a dancing cursor in front of them when I go to sleep.

But I come back the next day, again not knowing whether there will be work product at the end of it. I love it.

This is how I know that writing is my thing, and helping others write better to develop their careers and businesses floats my boat.

So if you’re casting about for your next undertaking, be it a new career or a dedicated hobby, ask yourself if there is anything for which you’re willing to do hard labor with no immediate rewards except for improving your skills. Your answer will point you to your true north.